Based on the chapter “Breaking Ice” in Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd ed.
Great icebreakers launch a great meeting They dissolve barriers among strangers. Bad icebreakers freeze the ice harder and freak out introverts by demanding intimate details from strangers. At its best, a good icebreaker is a proven facilitator’s strategy to make the beginning of meetings thrive.
A zillion icebreakers exist on the internet. Written for every occasion from the first date to waiting in the line at the airport to the annual corporate retreat, they can be ridiculous and invasive:
“What fruit do you want to be when you grow up?” What?!
“If you were a keyboard, what type would you be?” Really?!
“What insect best resembles your personality?” I have no idea, but I’d like to squish the damn bug.
Cutesy icebreakers cruelly put shy people on the spot. Icebreakers that turn an extrovert into a fountain of excess may turn off the introvert’s spigot.
Leader: If you were Godzilla, what would you say to your mother?
Extrovert: Wow! What a great question! Mom! Blah! Blah! Blah! That was fun!
Introvert (thinking silently): Are you kidding me? I’m out of here.
The Goal is to Warm Up not Freeze Over
By definition, icebreakers crack the ice. People relax. The meeting warms up with the buzz of conversation. A good icebreaker cuts a passageway for the whole group to leave port confident, energized and focused on the agenda at hand.
Be on Topic
Icebreakers work best if they connect to the topic of the meeting. Questions about what type of fruit you are only work at a meeting of produce sellers. Icebreakers serve a dual purpose. They should put people at ease and focus the mind on the topic at hand. Here are some examples:
If your meeting is about affordable housing, ask something like, “What was the shabbiest place you ever lived and why?”
If your summit focuses on transportation ask, “What was the most unusual trip you ever took?”
If it’s about environmental justice and climate change ask, “If you were a cheetah, where would you run and hide?”
Create a good icebreaker by writing down a list of topics included in the meeting. If you’re discussing educational achievement, list “educational achievement.” If designing an annual retreat celebrating the accomplishments of the last year, right down “celebrations” and “accomplishments.” Next, start drafting icebreaker questions. Let your imagination roam. For the topic of educational achievement, write something that taps into memories around school accomplishments:
Describe a moment in your life when you felt proudest about your educational success.
Name a mentor who most helped you achieve success. Describe the person and what they mean to you.
In your growing up years, what one thing that you did brings you the greatest satisfaction and sense of accomplishment now?
Choose the question that most appeals to you. Refine and edit. Show the options to a couple of colleagues and see which one they like. Then edit again. Simple always beats complicated.
When you overhear conversations in well-designed icebreakers, you’ll be pleased with how folks pause, laugh and go deep easily as they engage in the topic at hand.
Icebreakers that are on‑topic can be fun, expand perspectives, and maybe even touch the heart. Your icebreaker will thaw and engage the group. In less than five minutes, your meeting can be off to a great start.
© 2021 Dr. Mark Smutny. All rights reserved no part of this article may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording company taping or any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of Dr. Mark Smutny except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
For more resources, articles, workshops, coaching, speaking, facilitation services and to order copies of the book, Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd ed., visit www.civicreinventions.com. Email Mark Smutny a question, idea for inclusive meetings, a book recommendation, or a personal story at email@example.com. He will personally respond to your email.